Great Goals is a name that is fast becoming extremely recognisable in and around the youth football scene in Chennai. Not really classifying themselves into the category of an academy, they term themselves more as a sports program designed to help kids find and nurture their passion.
That is exactly what Great Goals have been doing ever under the watchful eyes of two women - Priya Gopalen and Sandhya Rajan. The duo founded Great Goals in 2013 because of their passion for the game, developed after helping their own kids play and practice the sport.
They have now grown into a fully-fledged sports program with age group football teams right from age 4 to 16. They are accredited by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and have teams playing the Junior and Sub-Junior I-League. Moreover, they now conduct at least three baby leagues in Chennai and hold an annual tournament for academies in the city across five different age groups that involves more than 750 kids.
The have six rented spaces in and around Chennai now - in Kilpauk, Kotturpuram, Adyar, Neelankarai, Nandanam and Nungambakkam. Three of them are at schools, Two of them are turf grounds and one is a big natural surface. Additionally, they have a match ground at SSN College which has a natural grass surface.
The rise stems from the passion and vision of the two founders.
Priya is an engineer from BITS-Pilani, holds an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management and a Masters in Public Policy from Columbia University. Sandhya is a gold medalist in Science at the Masters level from the University of Madras. Both of them spent time in North America, where they developed an interest in football, before coming down to India in 2012 and starting Great Goals the next year.
"Both of us are very involved with children’s activities. We used to volunteer and help out at schools. We felt that sports activity is an important part of a child’s development. It contributes a lot to their life skills. One of the visions of Great Goals is to help kids achieve greater goals in life through sports. We started with that objective in mind," explained Sandhya.
"We have boys who are both 17 years old now. They were both into football and they both play. So we’ve been at enough games and training sessions as parents ferrying them. So, football was a natural choice for us (to start Great Goals)," she added.
"The child is very important to us. The child and his development is what we focus on."
It is worth noting that Great Goals were second in Chennai in the Junior I-League (as of now), ahead of established teams like FC Madras, Chennai City FC, Raman Vijayan Soccer Schools (RVSS) etc. In the Sub-Junior I-League, they are fifth ahead of Chennai City FC and RVSS.
The success has come as a result of some meticulous planning done by Priya and Sandhya. "Season for us starts in June. I-League can be from anytime between December to April. The teams typically practice four days a week. One session is about 1.5 hours," said Priya.
"From June to September, the players get around six-to-seven hours of training per week. In October we wrap it up. Then we increase it to about 8-to-10 hours when the league is imminent. Again, we are not a residential academy and these kids have to go to school and complete their academic curriculum," added Sandhya.
"We have an introductory programme in sports for kids aged four. We focus on agility, balance and coordination. It is also designed to get kids used to a culture of playing sports at a very young age," said Priya.
"From the age of five, we start football and from age eight, we start basketball also. So, grassroots programs are for kids aged 5,6,7,8 and 9. We have U9 and U11 teams too apart from the Junior and Sub-Junior teams."
She also adds that there is a total of 16 qualified coaches taking care of the teams apart from a pool of 5-6 part-time coaches. The interesting part here is that Sandhya and Priya make sure their coaches know what the brief is. Since they are dealing with young kids, the duo understand the importance of ensuring the coaches know how to deal with young children and get their message across.
"We do a lot of coach education programmes. It’s not just about footballing knowledge. It is about communicating with the kids and which language you interact with them. We had montessori and elementary teachers come in and talk to our coaches.
"How do you cope when the child might not be behaving the way you want, across age groups. Sub Junior and Junior and a 5-year-old have different challenges. No challenge is small and they cannot be ignored. Our coaches are qualified football coaches but we have to help them be effective with the child in a child-centric way," explains Priya.
It has to be noted that Great Goals do not have a sponsor or an investor and they are completely funded by Priya and Sandhya. The duo have come a long way in seven years and are still going strong. Commendably, they make it a point not to turn away a kid just because they can't afford the programme. In fact, Great Goals have instituted a scholarship program tailored to suit the kids' financial situation.
"We have kids from all backgrounds. It was important for us to provide a platform for everybody irrespective of the affordability. We have players who can afford and can pay for the program. We started a scholarship in 2015 for kids who could not," said Sandhya.
"Either we sponsor them or we have people who donate or sponsor them. We had around 35 kids on full scholarships last year," she added before Priya chirps in - "No child is ever turned away from Great Goals because they cannot afford to pay."
It is no mean feat for two women to nurture and grow a sports programme like Great Goals to where it has reached. Both Priya and Sandhya share a common goal and that is to impact the lives of children. And that hunger and desire has kept them going.
"There was a lack of eco-system for a child to pursue sport in the society. We’ve been very conscious about the fact that we wanted to create such an eco-system," said Priya. "There was also the lack of available infrastructure or grounds for the children to play," said Sandhya, detailing some of the challenges they have faced in their journey thus far.
"Also, we feel we are taken more seriously now. It was not a challenge but there used to be a thought that ‘What are these two women doing in football’? We had to explain ourselves all the time and hopefully, we are past that stage," Sandhya added.
"When I bump into our kids, their eyes light up and you know you are impacting someone in a meaningful way. We have kids telling us how important football is in their life. One of the biggest things in our journey is that we have contributed significantly in the city to help kids play football who otherwise would not have had that chance to enjoy the sport," explains Priya.